Monday, March 25, 2013

JC Frémont was here

A Fremont cottonwood grows along the Fremont River in southeast Utah.
John Charles Frémont (USA; 1813-1890) was a mathematician, explorer, topographer, expedition leader, military commander, entrepreneur and politician.  He was considered a hero and a scoundrel, visionary and foolish, was court-martialed for mutiny, lost a presidential election, lost a fortune to poor investment in spite a powerful political position, and was one of the greatest explorers of the American West.  But was this man a botanist?
General J.C. Frémont, from the Carll H. de Silver Fund, Brooklyn Museum Online Collection.

His adventures began with a two-year stint as a math teacher aboard a naval vessel off the coast of South America.  Next he landed a job as an engineer on a railroad survey project, and then in 1838 was made assistant to the accomplished topographer Joseph Nicollet on pioneering surveys between the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.  Bright and ambitious, Frémont quickly learned the topographer’s trade, and when Nicollet became ill, he took over as leader.  By this time, his application for a commission had been approved, making him a Second Lieutenant in the US Topographical Corps.
The travels of John Charles Frémont.  Sierra Nevada in red, Great Basin in blue.
Frémont went on to lead five exploratory expeditions across the American West for the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers (above), producing much-needed maps and dispelling geographical myths.  His second and third expeditions circumnavigated the Sierra Nevada of California, crossing the range in mid-winter twice (bold? or foolhardy?) and quashing all hopes of finding the Río Buenaventura, said to flow from the interior to the sea.  Instead they discovered an immense area of interior drainage east of the Sierra Nevada where no river ever reaches the sea.  Frémont named it the Great Basin.
Sign courtesy Inyo-White National Forest; click photo to read.
The 19th century was a grand time for plant collectors as well as topographers.  The flora of western North America was very poorly known, and there were tremendous opportunities for finding "novelties" -- plants new to science.  The collectors themselves were a disparate group.  Some were educated botanists but many were self-taught, perhaps with a bit of training in proper preparation of specimens in the field.  They included pioneer settlers, farmers, gardeners, doctors, army officers and miscellaneous free spirits -- all captivated by the promise of botanical discovery.

Frémont recognized the need for botanical material and insisted that specimens be collected on his expeditions.  He himself was the “botanist” on all but one.  He probably was first exposed to plant collecting on the Nicollet expeditions, observing the work of botanist Karl Geyer.  Later, he received advice and direction from the academic botanists to whom he sent his collections.  “Lieut. F. must be indoctrinated, & taught to collect both dried spec. & seeds” wrote botanist Asa Gray of Harvard.
Asa Gray in 1864; photo by John Whipple.
Plant collecting in Frémont's time was not all that different from now.  Specimens were preserved in the field by pressing and drying, and had to be dried fairly quickly to prevent decay and minimize discoloration.  This is easy to do today, at least in the semi-arid country where I work.  Plants are placed in folded sheets of newspaper between pieces of corrugated cardboard making up a plant press.  One can simply strap the loaded press on top of the truck and let warm dry air stream through corrugations in the cardboard.  An alternative, if one is close to civilization, is to set the press on a “plant drier” where heat from lightbulbs dries the contents (too much heat will ruin specimens).
Tools of the trade.
For 19th-century field botanists, drying pressed plants was much more difficult.  Specimens were placed between sheets of paper to absorb moisture.  These had to be changed and dried regularly -- daily if possible.
“We sit for hours before a hot camp fire, with the sweat pouring down our face, to completely dry our papers and plants.  How I wish the plants dried at once, but often it takes several days and sometimes a week ... Each day we must press them between dry paper.  And what a misery when it rains; then nothing or no one is dry!  When it is windy our scarce paper blows out into the meadows.” -- anonymous plant collector (Nilsson 1994).
Once dried, plant specimens had to be kept dry ... and safe.  Many of the collections made on Frémont’s second expedition were lost in a series of accidents, much to his dismay:
“In the gorges and ridges of the Sierra Nevada, of the Alta California,we lost fourteen horses and mules, falling from rocks or precipices into chasms or rivers, bottomless to us and to them, and one of them loaded with bales of plants collected on a line of two thousand miles of travel”
 “when almost home, our camp on the banks of the Kansas was deluged by the great flood, which, lower down, spread terror and desolation on the borders of the Missouri and Mississippi, and by which great damage was done to our remaining perishable specimens, all wet and saturated with water, and which we had no time to dry.”
On the third expedition, Frémont went to great pains to minimize losses.  When they reached the California coast, plant specimens were packed in tin boxes, the ends soldered shut.  These were placed in wooden boxes wrapped in green cowhides, shipped to Panama, transported across the isthmus, and then put on a ship bound for New York, finally reaching the closet botanists eagerly awaiting plant material from the West.
Botanist John Torrey was Frémont's main academic contact; portrait from Harvard University Library.
Most of the plant collectors exploring the western US in the 19th century had little or no training in plant classification.  Specimens were sent east to academic botanists working in herbaria -- called “closet botanists” in the day.  Frémont sent his first batch to John Torrey of Princeton and Columbia Universities.  He did so “somewhat presumptuously” (Welsh 1998), i.e. without prior arrangement, but the package was eagerly accepted by Torrey even so.  He knew the value of the material and the potential for novelties.  Torrey forwarded part of the collection to his colleague at Harvard, Asa Gray.
The California fremontia or flannelbush (Fremontodendron californicum) was named in honor of JC Frémont by John Torrey.  Source.

At least 2100 plant collections from Frémont’s five expeditions went to Torrey, Gray and other closet botanists.  These were to yield 163 new types of plants, including 19 new genera.  This was especially impressive given the great difficulty of collecting specimens:
“... explorations were made on horseback, and by such rapid movements, (which were necessary, in order to accomplish the objects of the expedition,) that but little opportunity was afforded for collecting and drying botanical specimens. Besides, the party was in a savage and inhospitable country, sometimes annoyed by Indians, and frequently in great distress from want of provisions; from which circumstances, and the many pressing duties that constantly engaged the attention of the commander, he was notable to make so large a collection as he desired.” -- John Torrey (in Frémont 1845).
In his report for the second expedition, Frémont told of finding a new kind of cottonwood in the valley of the Santa Clara River in today’s southern Utah.  If he collected any material, it did not survive.  He encountered it again in California on the third expedition, and collected a specimen along the Sacramento River.  It was in the shipment sent to New York by way of the Isthmus of Panama, and finally ended up in the hands of botanist Sereno Watson at Harvard, who in 1875 named it Populus fremontii, the Fremont cottonwood -- one of 40 plant species that now bear Frémont’s name.
“The stream is prettily wooded with sweet cottonwood trees -- some of them of large size ... This cottonwood is of a different species than any in Michaux’s Sylva” (Frémont 1845). Above, a Fremont cottonwood stands before the capitols of Capitol Reef National Park, Utah; below, with cross-bedded sandstone in Harris Wash, Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, also in Utah.
There are more of Frémont's plants nearby.  Fremont mahonia (Mahonia fremontii) grows on the slopes just above Harris Wash.  Below, a single (compound) leaf with thick sharply-toothed leaflets, followed by the shrub.
Most of Frémont’s discoveries were described and published by others, but not all.  After the first expedition, he asked John Torrey if he might join him as a coauthor.  Torrey agreed, and some 18 species would be published with “Torr. and Frém.” as authorities (cited authors).
Pinus monophylla Torr. and Frém., the single-leaf pinyon (from Frémont 1845).
But was John Charles Frémont a botanist?  In discussing Frémont’s botanical legacy, Welsh (1998) calls him a botanical explorer but not a professional botanist.  The man certainly was dedicated to the profession, dutifully collecting and drying plants in spite of all the hardships and difficulties of traveling through unknown country by horseback for many months at a time.  To his credit, he generally kept detailed records of specimens and collection locations.  He must have known the flora well enough to recognize plants of interest.  Finally, there's no doubt that his botanical discoveries -- including 163 novelties -- were a major contribution to our knowledge of the flora of the American West.  Sounds like a botanist to me.
The USA 5c stamp of the 1898 Trans-Mississippi issue featured botanist John Charles Frémont. 

Sources (in addition to links in post)

Frémont, J.C.  1845.  Report of the exploring expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the year 1843, and to Oregon and North California in the years 1843-1844.  Washington, DC  Senate Doc. 461, 28th Congress.

Nilsson, K.B.  1994.  A wild flower by any other name; sketches of pioneer naturalists who named our western plants.  Yosemite National Park:  Yosemite Association.

Welsh, S.L.  1998.  John Charles Frémont, botanical explorer.  Saint Louis:  Missouri Botanical Garden Press.

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